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On this page: Anti Feminists

Geraldine Robertson
February 2012


a. GRIEF RELATED TO ABORTION - ‘Moderate Feminists’

b. FOR GOD AND EMPIRE – the Australian Women’s National League 1904-1944?


Once again there is discussion about the nature of feminism and what ideas are, or are not, feminist or anti-feminist. So I looked into our herstory for help – and found it.

On this page I show some anti-feminist reaction to the women’s movement over the last 100 years and more in Melbourne. 

I interesting to us now, I think, because of the similarities in method anti-feminists have used over this time. 

As well as the rights feminists always demand, ‘women’s rights to political, economic and social independence’ (Alice Henry), independent meaningful participation in society and equality in law etc., the documentation that is available to us shows two other themes that are consistent over time:

a. Control over fertility, and
b. Freedom to move in public without fear of male violence in retaliation.

A century ago anti-feminists, and some women who were feminist in other areas, opposed contraceptive use. They said they were concerned it would create ‘licentious behaviour’ in men.

Now anti feminists, and some women who are feminist in other areas, say it is irresponsible behaviour in men causing unecessay abortions that they are concerned about.

The argument is just the same. It denies women the right to be free of the threat of involuntary child-bearing.

These themes change in style but not in substance. The early feminists espoused access to the means of ‘voluntary motherhood’. 

Brettena Smyth (1842-1898) argued ‘Every woman should say so many and no more (children) and when she will have them. Marriage should protect her freedom of choice, not make her a slave’. Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly

She '... had become convinced that the most pressing inequality found by the great mass of women was not public but private: overwork, economic deprivation and ill-health - all caused by frequent and involuntary child-bearing ... 

She launched the Australian Women's Suffrage Society, which was to be linked in the public mind with her advocacy of the right of every woman to advice about, and access to, contraceptives ... ' Audrey Oldfield 

'Annette Bear-Crawford was and educationalist and social reformer particularly concerned with the plight of unmarried mothers. She believed: "No husband owns a wife body and soul. It is insulting to call her a dependent considering the work she does." United Council for Woman Suffrage booklet  

'Arising from her deep concern for unmarried mothers, with Vida Goldstein and Vida's mother in 1897 she launched the 'willing shilling' drive to build the Queen Victoria Hospital for women and children.' Queen Victoria Hospital history of the shilling fund website 

Vida Goldstein: ‘Did we seek to be forbidden from all trades that pay? / Did we claim lower wages from a man’s full work day? / Did we petition for the laws wherein our shame is shown? / That not a woman’s child – or her body – is her own? womenworkingtogether.com.au

Bessie Harrison-Lee: 'My advice to those who cannot afford a family is not to have one. I believe that the woman who works and suffers for her children should have a right to say whether she will have little ones or no.' Patricia Grimshaw

Anti feminists also argue agaianst the economic independence feminists work for, substituting a form of pocket-money – the ‘wives allowance’ of the early Australian National Women’s League, and more recently the ‘homemakers allowance’ of the putative Moderate Feminists.

It is these two groups I am quoting here.

‘Moderate? Feminists’ 

'(Women's Action Alliance) is an insidious arm of a semi-secret organisation whose full-time members have managed to hinder and wreck work done in vast areas of progressive women's liberation activities.

It has tremendous reception in the press (particularly the Women's Weekly) ... it has managed to create 'controversy' and divisions over 'educational and moral issues'.

Through clever manipulation of feminist terms, aims and principles, it has worked to co-opt the (women's liberation) movement, recruiting large numbers of women. This is vital to their success.' Scarlet Women's Collective cited in Women Working Together 

In the early 70’s the Women’s Bureau of the National Civic Council (NCC) was formed by ‘Catholic Action’ (which) was set up in Melbourne with Mr B Santamaria as National Director. 

With Women’s Action Alliance it established a group called ‘Moderate Feminists’ at Melbourne University as part of the Australian Union of Students. According to the documentation we have available, it was neither moderate nor feminist. 

These quotes are taken from Women Working Together suffrage and onwards 

Women's Report to NCC Melbourne State Conference: 'The National Civic Council - Women's Action Alliance viewpoint - 

The Trade Unions: 'WAA has been most active in this area "challenging women's liberationists in the trade unions." Their tactic has been to establish "women's bureaus" to effectively diffuse any issues and divert energy into "management training", "pregnancy support" etc. 

The Student area: 'In the student area we have established a "Moderate Feminists" group with the main Victorian person being Margaret O'Connell. Throughout the year this group has presented an alternative viewpoint to that of the Australian Union of Students (AUS) Women's departments on the tertiary campuses and has won a surprising degree of support for the views it has expressed.' 

The Public Service: 'This is an area where women's liberationists are very active. Some of you may remember the name of Penny Ryan. Penny Ryan was a former Women's Advisor to the Victorian Premier's Department ... Another similar example was the recent appointment of the former Australian Union of Students women's officer Laurie Bebbington as Project Officer for the Victorian Government's Youth, Sport and Recreation Department's Committee on Social Development. 

It was due to the work of movement members (B A Santamaria's "The Movement" - National Civic Council) that both Penny Ryan and Laurie Bebbington lost their jobs with the Victorian Public Service. 

WAA has members on several important government committees ... innumerable submissions and letters ... we are represented at the National Council of Women where an executive position is held. 

Equal Opportunity Resource Centre: 'The Victorian Government is currently re-considering the whole future of the Equal Opportunity Resource Centre and that is also due to us. 

The Women's Electoral Lobby: 'The final area I want to look at is WEL, which is little but a front for the extreme women's liberationists ...' 

WAA general Report: '... one example is a course which has just been completed. The aim was to train some of our women members in the various areas of the women's debate. 

Twenty five people enrolled in the course which covered ... position, role and future of family, working women, sexism in education ... As a result ... many of our young people are better equipped to go back into the tertiary campuses or into the unions to take part in the women's debate.

It is expected that when these people leave the campuses or (obtain) full-time employment that the experience that they have gained will enable them to become operators for "Women's Action Alliance." Today we have more young people actively involved with the show ... than at any time in the past ten years.' 

'WAA has been outspoken and gained recognition in many areas of debate. It has had success and will continue to have success because of its rational approach to the problems that women face today ... 

We are challenging the women's liberationists in the trade unions. If it had not been for (our) members work, the ACTU and VTHC would have long ago granted recognition to the Working Women's Centre ... by refusing them recognition we have been able to very severely limit their penetration and effectiveness.' 

WAA has members on several important government committees ... We are represented at the National Council of Women where an executive position is held. The organisation is constantly asked to provide speakers for various organisations and functions.' womenworkingtogether.com.au


the Australian Women’s National League 1904-1944?

Our best power lies behind the throne', guiding 'right-thinking men ... to act for us - amending laws relating to women and women's honour, framing new ones as will safeguard her interests'...

The members of the League do not seek place or power; they do not wish to send women into parliament. They wish to educate themselves and others to use consciously and intelligently the vote the country has given them.' Eva Hughes 

‘It was established in March 1904 by men, notably, the Victorian Employers’ Federation… 

- in Sept 1905 there were 10,000 members and 83 branches;

- in 1907 they held the first Pan-Australian Conference of Anti-Socialist Women’s Organisations (25th Oct.); … its aim was to elect men of character to politics.’ www.victoria.org.au/The/Suffrage/Society.htm   

Its motto was PRO DEO ET PATRIA, although in practice god seemed to them to come mainly in the form of the Throne, and the devil in the form of socialism and feminism.  In Vida’s time the ‘anti’ she most complained about was the Australian Women’s National League. 

These quotes are also taken from Women Working Together, suffrage and onwards

' Vida Goldstein's admirable poll of 51,497 votes in her 1903 campaign had shown the potentiality of the women's vote. Her success, however, aroused fear in the opposite political camp. The result was the formation of the Australian Women's National League ... 

Janet Lady Clarke was virtually the direct antithesis of Vida Goldstein in her public methods of work and her political views.'Janice Brownfoot

'In 1903, the same year Vida Goldstein (with many other women) formed the Women's Federal Political Association (WPA), Frederick Derham ... moved once more to forestall the attempts to gain the vote for Victorian women ... 

Victorian employers moved to "unite in defence of their interests" and the Victorian Employers Federation (VEF) was born in 1902. 

Derham approached Janet Lady Clarke "... with a request that she gather women who had signed the anti-suffrage petition to discuss the formation of a group that would continue to fight socialism and suffrage for women." 

In the beginning the stated objectives of the Australian Women's National League were to support loyalty to the throne, to combat socialism and to preserve the purity of the home. In 1905 the League acknowledged that there was a need to educate women in politics.' Elizabeth Coady

'The men behind the formation of the AWNL envisaged the women's organisations as adjuncts to the male Australian National Leagues, which were concerned with electing right-wing Liberal men to Parliament, but the movement quickly took on a life of its own ... 

By September 1905 (only eighteen months after its formation) it had eighty-three branches, providing social activities for its 10,000 members as well as working for the party ... 

Speakers at its meetings, she went on, were men, "all of whom bitterly opposed the granting of the franchise to women, and are opposed to it still". Audrey Oldfield   

'By 1909 the League's numbers were 16,000, from about 120 branches throughout Victoria, most of whom had been persuaded to join the fight for the 'anti-socialist cause'. 

By 1911 the League had 25,000 members on its books ... and it continued to climb to 52,000; it was to reach a peak of 54,000 during the war...' Judith Smart